The April 24th second round run-off saw President Macron beat challenger Marine Le Pen by 58% to 42%. Polling had given him an edge of 8 to 10%, so this is a bigger than expected win.
This represents the third second round loss for the Le Pen family and their party, the National Front / National Rally. Her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, lost 82% to 18% in 2002’s run-off. Marine Le Pen lost 66% to 34% to Macron in the last election in 2017.
Le Pen and her party have historically had problems crossing over with voters of other parties. Upper class French view her as the candidate of the working class. Leftists regard her as a fascist and unvotable. Centrists also are scared off by that label too, and apart from her views on migration and crime, often struggle to find parts of her platform they support.
She also did herself no favors this time by not courting the support of the center right Republicains party- their leader endorsed Macron. Right wing candidate Eric Zemmour, whose views have a large overlap with Le Pen, announced his support for her after his first round loss. But she seemed to reject that support and promised no cabinet positions for him or his party. While he only polled 7% of the electorate, those numbers are key to securing an enthusiastic majority.
And finally, Le Pen has been known as a poor debater and poor on TV in general in the past. The head to head three hour debate with Macron on April 20th confirmed that view. While Macron undoubtedly came across and haughty and aggressive, no one can deny his command of facts and figures. His presentation of his views was crisp and clear. Le Pen seemed fuzzy on her proposals, on the numbers behind them, and constantly fell back on political speech that seemed hollow. Le Pen supporters were likely disappointed, and it convinced nobody to switch teams from Macron or another candidate.
We will see how Macron and the establishment perform in the June legislative elections. Macron had a strong majority in 2017 but saw it chipped away by defections in the past five years. The other parties, of both right and left, are making this a major focus for 2022. We may finally see a more fractured Parliament, the first sign of left and right wing populists finally chipping away at the power of the mainstream parties. It would also be the first translation of populists’ success in the presidential elections to regional power.
The populists are coming closer and closer, but still are not able to get over the line. Will Le Pen’s party finally get enough votes in 2027 to push her to victory? Or will the populist right pick a new face after seeing her party lose three times? The ideas will remain the same, but the key question now is who can carry them to victory. And there are a couple of other interesting variables in the mix for the next five years in France.
The Ongoing Populist Shift in France
A political re-alignment is in process in France. We look to be halfway through the process, as the establishment has rebranded, but the populist left and right continue to gain market share. The establishment left has bought itself another five years, and the establishment right is dead.
Most Western countries have seen a populist re-aligment since the Financial Crisis, where populist wings kill or take over the major established parties. We all are familiar with the US and UK populists of last decade. But Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark have seen major shifts of one or both sides of the aisle to populism.
In France’s case, there were two establishment parties up until around 2017. The Socialist and Republicain parties ran France in a duopoly for over 40 years. But their candidates got 1.8% and 4.8% respectively in this election, so those parties are effectively over as of now.
Macron’s “La Republique en Marche” party took over the center-left elements of the Socialist party, and won easily in 2017. For the 2022 campaign, he had to adjust his policies and positions by throwing several concessions to the right. He talked about limiting immigration, about doubling the police force, about a more nationalist energy policy, among other talking points. But, it’s obvious Macron and his party are just a new coat of paint on the same old French establishment.
On the left, Jean Luc Melenchon for the second time polled 20%+, and showed that there are many left wingers unhappy with the status quo. Similar to how Bernie Sander’s popularity tore a rift in the Democratic party, Melenchon’s strength is challenging the establishment left.
On the right, Zemmour and Le Pen have beaten and replaced the establishment center right. Their combined first round total of ~31% compares to a pitiful 4.8% for the Republicains. While the Republicains party may keep winning regional and mayoral elections, their time as a national force is over without a major shift to the populist agenda.
Furthermore, the populist right has time on its side. The younger a voter is, the more likely he or she is to support Le Pen (and by proxy, a populist right wing agenda). The only age group that supports Macron overall is the group of 55+. As younger voters join the rolls, the electorate will shift structurally rightwards. This data does not fully mirror the final votes counted, as the breakdown has not yet been released but, the trend is clear of youthful support for the right.
Source: YouGov poll, April 9th
The Military’s Role
Those who have not followed France closely before may be surprised to learn that the military is a powerful presence in the country. The French military is about as conservative as it gets, with many political links to right wing and traditional Catholic candidates. And they have been up in arms about the state of the country for over a decade, with public letters and confrontations with elected officials. The national police force, the Gendarmerie, works closely with the military and share its outlook.
This has bubbled over in several major events. First, Zemmour himself as a journalist had repeatedly highlighted since at least 2016 that the military doesn’t trust the civilian establishment and had come up with their own plan to deal with immigration: Operation Brambles. This would involve the army and national police rounding up or surrounding tens of thousands of Islamists and their supporters in the periphery of major cities. During the first few months of Macron’s first term (July 2017), the head of the military, Pierre de Villiers, asked for more funding for the army. He warned of dire consequences without additional funds and if new priorities were not taken seriously. After a meeting in which Macron rebuffed him, he resigned. Finally, a host of retired generals and regular soldiers signed a letter in 2021 warning of a civil war and that the survival of France was at stake. Le Pen supported the military, Macron was furious, and the press was incredulous. But it shows you where the dividing lines have been drawn.
In this election, the military backed Zemmour. His campaign chief, Bertrand de la Chesnais, was a former Major General in the Army. One of his vice chairmen, Philippe de Villiers, is the brother of the general who resigned after his confrontation with Macron. The Zemmour agenda was essentially the military’s agenda: zero immigration, deport criminals and illegal immigrants, take France out of NATO’s central command, and rebuild the armed forces and national arms industry. Le Pen as well took on many, if not all, of these ideas.
What will the military do now that their agenda did not win at the ballot box? We are not sure, but we encourage readers to watch this space. France has had attempted coups d’etat since World War 2, but we are not suggesting that as a base case. Perhaps the military manages to convince senior officials in Macron’s government to change course. Perhaps they force a resignation of Macron and his successor implements a pro-military agenda. Maybe some lawmakers aligned with the military can force a national referendum on some of their proposals and major concerns. But the military is getting increasingly concerned and has limited options, so they will have to be forceful in order to produce change.
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